The New York Times – September 14, 1980
Lillian Gish – A Tribute to a Trouper
By ANITA LOOS
Anita Loos and Lillian Gish worked together in the early days of the motion picture industry. Miss Loos, whose most recent book is “The Talmadge Girls, is now at work on “The Hollywood Nobody Knows.”
‘Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared.’
Now that Lillian Gish is to be honored with a formal tribute by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, it might be well to update the account of her extraordinary career in motion pictures. Lillian’s entrance into films was through a stage door. The family base was Massillon, a small city in Ohio, but Lillian and her sister, Dorothy, (younger by two years) had spent much of their childhood touring with theatrical troupes through the Eastern states and the Middle West. At that time. motion pictures were shown in converted store buildings called nickelodeons. They lacked the dignity of show business, but when the girls received an offer to work in movies, their mother welcomed it. They would have to give up their native Massillon to live in New York, but it meant an end of touring and the advantage of a permanent home.
Mamma Gish, an attractive young widow, could easily have had a life of her own. But her main concern was the children: to bring them up in that strange new environment to have the ideals; integrity and common sense that were a heritage from their Midwestern forebears.
Keeping pace with an industry that was gradually becoming an art. Lillian’s progress never faltered. She has given unforgettable performances in films that are landmarks in the history of motion pictures. In D.W. Griffith’s ”Birth of a Nation,,, Lillian plays the Northern Belle who reveals the gallantry of the South during our Civil War; she is the Mother who “endlessly, rocks the cradle in “Intolerance,” a performance that took only a half hour to film but will remain forever in the memories of its audience. Lillian played the pathetic adulteress of “The Scarlet Letter”; the wayward Mimi of “La Boheme”; the helpless waif of “Broken Blossoms,,; and she costarred with her sister, Dorothy, in “Orphans of the Storm.” These films are occasionally shown today, and largely due to Lillian’s performances they still retain their freshness and vitality. The list of Lillian’s films goes on and on. Her latest major release, and incidentally her 100’th movie, was Robert Altman’s “A Wedding,’, filmed in the late 1970’s. And today, as the most elegant and youthful of grande dames, Lillian is at work on a television feature being filmed in California.
Lillian and I have been friends for almost 50 years. Our first encounter was by remote control. I had just mailed my first scenario to the Biograph Company in New York from my home in San Diego. With beginner’s luck, it was directed by D.W. Griffith himself, with Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore playing the leads. In those days, D. W. used his entire troupe when extras were required, and in a crowd entering a church are Lillian and Dorothy Gish. Later on, the Biograph Company moved to Hollywood and D.W. asked me to join them as permanent scenarist. When I first arrived at the studio, Lillian was away on location, but I met Dorothy. She was a bit of a clown, both on screen and off, and we became cronies, but it was some time before I really got to know Lillian. I never worked on her pictures. My stories were largely satires in which Lillian would have been out of place. Satire requires a touch of malice and of this Lillian has none. Dorothy and I loved to tease her by pretending she was “stuffy,” which wasn’t true. But she has a delightful sense of the ridiculous. There was no lack of fun in Lillian’s whereabouts; we became good friends. Lillian’s beauty; the benevolence in her smile; the wide blue eyes and golden hair, have always suggested an angel that belongs at the top of the Christmas tree. But of late, listening to Lillian on the trends that films have taken is to invite an Angel of Wrath into your parlor. Her viewpoint on films has been unique; she considers them as Power; a power that generates energy as great as that of Arab oil or the nuclear stations. “There’s no question,” she says, “that films influence the entire world as nothing has since the invention of the printing press. But the impact of the printed word is nowhere near as strong as a visual experience. And the ‘entertainment’ foisted on our young people today is terribly disturbing.” “It is hard to understand the prevalence of degrading movies in view of the fact that they are far out-grossed at the box office by such legitimate entertainment as ‘The Turning Point’ or ‘Kramer vs. Kramer.’ It seems that they must be the product of some evil intention.”
Recently Lillian and I sat in my New York living room, discussing the changing viewpoints since we were teen-agers at the old Biograph Company in Hollywood. She recalled with a sense of pride that her sister, Dorothy, had once turned down a contract from Paramount of a million dollars to make eight comedy films. It was an offer that would forever banish the ghost of poverty that haunts every actor, but Dorothy turned Paramount down.
“Oh, no,” said she, “to have a million dollars at my age might ruin my character.” Mother Gish’s training in common sense had taken root. Looking back on those early days I remembered that Lillian had a premonition about the importance of films that few of us shared. It was Lillian alone who took those silent flickers seriously. We others looked on them as a fad that would soon lose public interest, as did those projectors of snapshots that were gathering dust on every parlor table. Even the fact that we were working with D. W. Griffith, who would one day be acclaimed a genius, failed to impress us; as it did Griffith himself for a time.
As a young actor he had dreamed of becoming a playwright; a modern Shakespeare who would bring poetry to the Broadway stage. His first play was so dismal a failure that D. W. realized the theater was not for him. He returned to picture-making with a resigned bitterness that seemed to mark the end of his career. But Lillian had a remarkable vision of a future toward which D. W. might be heading. Watching him direct, she began to sense that D. W. was viewing his effects with the eyes of a poet. It took Lillian a long time and thousands of feet of film to build up D. W. ‘s satisfaction in his work or to recognize his own unmatched talent. It was Lillian’s delight in watching rushes in their projection room and her appreciation of certain subtleties of direction that raised D. W.’s opinion of films and, little by little, released his inspiration. Lillian grew to be sort of an all-purpose collaborator to D. W.; she acted roles of every type and even coached other actresses when D. W. felt a need of female intuition. Which brings to mind an episode in which a certain star playing “Judith of Bethulia” had a torrid love scene.
To D. W. it was a touchy situation, for Judith’s costume was scant and D. W. didn’t want to flaunt verity by adding to it. So he ordered a placard to be propped against the Babylonian setting which stated viz., “During Judith’s love scenes the actress was chaperoned, off-screen, by her mother.” I may have had some part in the removal of that placard, but as I remember both Lillian and I giggled over D. W.’s prudery. Such was the “porno” of that innocent day. But on reflection, it now appears that much of the sensitivity in D. W .’s work may have been rooted in what was to my irreverent view a lack of “sophistication.” D. W. grew to consult with Lillian more and more, even on lighting and the cutting and editing of scenes. He told her, “You know more about films than I do.” And once when D. W. was forced to go on a trip to raise money. He turned over an entire production to Lillian. Her experience served to increase Lillian’s awe of the medium and her respect for its infinite capabilities “which,” says Lillian, “we haven’t yet even begun to realize.” Absorption in work kept D. W. and Lillian as close as if they were sweethearts, which the public, always ready to jump to wrong conclusions, decided they were. But D. W., in spite of his sensitivity to all human emotions, gave little thought to his personal affairs. Early in his career he had married an actress from whom he was divorced several years before he even met Lillian; she never even met D. W.’s wife. At any rate, Lillian had no time for romance, unless it was taking place on film .
Lillian’s devotion to her mother required much of her time and energy. For Mother Gish had suffered from a stroke that confined her to a life of inactivity. And, with disarming pride, she chose to think that nobody but the girls could manipulate a wheelchair. Meanwhile Dorothy had married the film actor James Rennie, and her husband required most of her attention. So for years it was Lillian’s chore (and her delight) to take Mother Gish window shopping whenever duties at the studio permitted. While other film stars were indulging in a succession of husbands, fiances, and love affairs, Lillian has kept aloof from all such involvements. And this is not due to any lack of opportunity. Suitors have pursued Lillian all her life, and in her fan mail, the love letters outnumber all the rest.
I recall a comment on Lillian’s sex appeal made by Cedric Gibbons, our set designer at M-G-M. One day he happened to overhear a group of girls discussing sex appeal, of which M-G-M had a corner on the market, viz. Garbo, Crawford, Del Rio, Shearer, Loy, et al. Cedric interrupted the discussion. “What does any girl know about the things that excite men?” he chided. “There’s more sex appeal in Lillian Gish’s fingertips than in all you flamboyant sexpots rolled together.” They subsided and gave Cedric the decision. After all, he was married to Dolores Del Rio and knew whereof he spoke.
A time finally came in the association of Lillian and Griffith when her box-office value reached astronomical proportions. And D. W., all of whose earnings were poured back into his films, persuaded Lillian to accept one of her many offers. To be separated after their three years of idyllic collaboration was heartbreaking.
After their parting, when Lillian’s career was at that high plateau from which it has never descended, D. W. made a confession to a writer which she later quoted in a memoir.
“I never had a day’s luck after Lillian left me,” said D. W. “But D. W.,” gasped the writer, “Lillian didn’t leave you … you chucked her out!”
“I ‘chucked her out’ because I was cheating her of the fortune she could earn with another producer. I allowed money to come between us.”
“But you were only thinking of her.” “I was thinking of my own ego. Lillian never thought of money. I did! ” The friendship between D. W. and Lillian remained as strong as ever. And when D. W. in his later years married a childish little bride, Lillian assumed a sort of guardianship that included both bride and groom. D. W. needed Lillian in yet another capacity. He had become an alcoholic.
Foremost among the heritage of Lillian’s pioneer ancestry is her pride and devotion to her country. “The time was,” she explains, “when I used to visit Europe every year to see my foreign friends and study their work. Those days are over. Now all my friends visit America because they know it to be the best and freest place on earth. I need go no further than the Algonquin to visit them.” “As to the future of films, I take heart that the theme of D. W .’s “Birth of a Nation” is just as vital today as when it was filmed. Only recently there was an active demonstration in a San Francisco theater where the “Birth” was shown. And there are other issues of American life just as dramatic as our Civil War. Hollywood has never filmed the dramatic story of Thomas Jefferson which culminated in our Constitution.”
“If Americans must be materialistic, we possess resources, opportunities, luxuries, comforts and gadgetry of which our pioneers never dreamed. But we’ve lost our self-esteem. Let’s strive to get it back.”
“We don’t need to be ‘born again’ with infantile thinking that has brought about the sorry state we’re in today. We need to regain the pioneer spirit of our beginnings. . . a respect of our ideals that will bring a measure of hope, appreciation and joy to our moving picture screens once more.”